The problem with Rosaline is also the very premise. This is Romeo and Juliet from a different perspective. It can give us dramatic irony and twists on familiar moments, but it is bound by the broad strokes of that story. Not just that, but it’s bound to show us many of those moments, or else it can’t even tell its story. Thus, we’re stuck with perfunctory recreations of moments that have been filmed far more grippingly in the past.
Perhaps the structure could have worked if the rest of Rosaline were clockwork, but it isn’t. The version of the story, as it’s told here, is that Rosaline (Kaitlyn Dever) is secretly dating Romeo (Kyle Allen), when he falls for her cousin, Juliet (Isabela Merced). The more worldly Rosaline offers to give virginal Juliet some dating advice in an attempt to sabotage their relationship and get Romeo back. This opening of the film is the film’s strongest section, as it gives the story the most to do outside of the strictures of the classic play.
Meanwhile, Rosaline’s father (Bradley Whitford) is constantly pushing suitors on her, which she finds increasingly erratic ways to alienate. She keeps bumping into one of those gentlemen, Dario (Sean Teale). It’s not a surprise when sparks fly between them, but it’s a bit of a disappointment that those sparks aren’t more frequent or fiery. Teale isn’t bad, per se, but his chemistry with Dever and the watered-down and formulaic enemies-to-lovers romance arc are halfhearted.
The film keeps the Verona setting but gives its characters contemporary American dialogue the majority of the time. It’s essentially a snarky teen comedy. This tone itself isn’t a problem, and it even creates some amusing dissonance with the source play. Some of the movie’s funniest moments are eye-rolling mockery of the more ridiculous plot turns and lines from Romeo and Juliet. What is a problem is that the script simply isn’t sharp or funny enough — few of the gags land with little more than a chuckle.
The film’s second half forces us to follow Rosaline on the fringes of familiar Romeo and Juliet scenes, and there are a few enjoyable subversions. My favorite is reimagining Paris (Spencer Stevenson) as a co-scheming gay best friend of Rosaline’s. Minnie Driver is also excellent as a powerhouse Nurse. Alas, just about everything else is a bust, none worse than the movie’s reinvention of the play’s final Act, the death of the teen lovers, which is cringe-inducingly corny and unfunny.
The biggest thing going for Rosaline is the performance by Dever of the title character. Dever manages to pull all the disparate objectives of the film into a coherent performance. So even as the film, e.g., bungles the attempt to add some girl-power feminism to the beloved play, it still more-or-less feels anchored by Dever and her exasperated wit.
From a production perspective, this is above-average streaming fare. It’s a far cry from prestige, but the lighting has some genuine depth and vitality to it, and the costuming is quite good. The film follows the lead of Bridgerton showcasing a peppy orchestral score that includes arrangements of anachronistic pop songs, like Taylor Swift.
I’m not sure what a truly successful version of Rosaline would look: probably a bit more steam in its romance and bit less beholden to the Bard. It’s breezy and watchable PG-13 teen comedy, but never rises into anything special.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film